Who Owns Our Words?

For artists and writers, their creativity is their livelihood. The ideas that sprout from their heads are what put bread on the table and rent checks and mortgage payments in the mail. But even more crucially, artists and writers bring themselves into their creation, so when someone is plagiarized, it’s not just stealing money – it’s almost like stealing a very part of who they are.

And yet once someone’s words are now out in the world, how much do those words become public domain for anyone to use? In a world where we are not only consumers, but producers, where does borrowing end and plagiarism begin?

That’s a question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in an essay called “Something Borrowed.” The 2004 Broadway play “Frozen” is, in large part, about a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. And nearly 675 words were taken almost directly from a 1997 New Yorker article entitled “Damaged” that Gladwell himself had written. And he asks – is plagiarism the same thing as stealing?

As he says:

“Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one…[and] plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 225-226)

But that idea–that plagiarism is simply stealing–assumes that we own the words we speak. Yet once we have written something down, or created a piece of music, or painted a picture, it now becomes open for anyone to enjoy, to learn from, and to be inspired by. Ideas are not like physical objects–they naturally get expanded upon, interpreted, and used in other forms. So how much do we “own” the words we speak?

The Importance of Proper Attribution

If we do “own” the words we speak, then we need to make sure that the right people get the credit they deserve. And the Rabbis of the Talmud were close to obsessed with giving proper attribution to ideas and quotes. That’s why so many Jewish texts start by saying, “Rabbi So-and-So said in the name of Rabbi Such-and-Such…” But why are the Rabbis so concerned with giving proper attribution?

There are a few reasons. Pirkei Avot (6:6) tells us that “if you say something in the name of the person who originally said it, you are bringing redemption to the world.” The Mishnah and the Talmud were originally transmitted orally (that’s why it’s sometimes called the “Oral Torah”), and so there was no physical written record of who had said what. By ensuring a level of respect to those who came before, the Rabbis were also making sure that quotes, ideas and laws were handed down faithfully, and that some renegade Rabbi wasn’t making things up as he went along.

But I think there is another reasons, as well. The way God created the world was through speech – “‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Our words are physical objects, because words create worlds. So if it was important not to steal people’s property, it was equally important not to steal their ideas, either.

Into the Public Domain

And yet the Rabbis also realized that there is a public domain, where our ideas might take on a life of their own. There is a classic story in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), where the Rabbis were arguing over whether a certain type of oven was kosher.One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, tried to prove that he was right by having God perform miracles: “If I’m right, let this carob tree prove it!”, he said, and the carob tree uprooted its branches and moved. “If I’m right, let this river prove it!”, and the river started to flow backwards. But none of the other Rabbis were convinced by the miracles.Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let God Himself prove it!” At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!”

You would think this would have ended the matter. You would think that within the Rabbinic mindset, they would have said, “God gave the Torah, so God must know who has the right interpretation of it. And clearly, Rabbi Eliezer does. End of story.”

Instead, Rabbi Joshua stood up and said, “‘The Torah is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice.”

“We don’t listen to God any more, since the Torah is now ours,” Rabbi Joshua is saying. Notice that here the Rabbis weren’t arguing over whether Rabbi Eliezer was right or not. What they seem to be saying was that once God gave the Torah, it was now in the Rabbis’ hands to interpret it. Once the Torah was given to the people of Israel, it became theirs to own, and no longer simply God’s.

Who Owns Our Words?

So we face a tension about how ideas live in the world. On the one hand, people deserve credit if they come up with new thoughts. On the other hand, once the ideas are out there, no one truly “owns” them any more – anyone can access or use them.

As Gladwell reminds us, words do not “have a virgin birth and an eternal life” – there is a “chain of influence.” (243) So we have two-fold responsibility when it comes to attribution. First, as much as we can, we need to give credit where credit is due. Since there is nothing physical in the words we speak, it is that much more important to honor those who have created their works. On the other hand, we also have to remember that our own words quickly become public and owned by all.

The Rabbis are a perfect example of how to live out both sides of this obligation. Rabbi Joshua’s statement that “The Torah is not in heaven” implies that the greatest honor we can give the Torah is to help it become a living document. We build on what has come before, and we hope that others will build on afterwards.

So for our own ideas, we need first to remember that we build on the past. But if we think about our ideas as alive, then what greater honor can there be than having our words inspire someone else to expand on what we have created?

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